My Marijuana Experiences by John Irwin

John Irwin was born in 1929 in Los Angeles. After a dismal educational performance, ending with graduation from high school with straight Ds in his final year, and several years of intense participation in various deviant activities, including drug use and armed robberies, he was sent to prison in California where he served 5 years. Upon release he began college in earnest and received a BA in sociology at UCLA, a Master’s and PhD in sociology at UC Berkeley. He taught sociology for 27 years at San Francisco State University. He wrote and published five books, mostly about prisons and jails (The Felon, Prisons in Turmoil, The Jail, and It’s About Time) and received several awards from the American Sociological Association, the American Society of Criminology, and the Western Society of Criminology. He is retired and is currently finishing his autobiography, starting a new study of prisons, and trying to continue to surf, a sport he has engaged in for 49 years.

My experiences with marijuana span over fifty years and divide into three different types of use. The first type was becoming and being a “head,” a person for whom marijuana use is a central activity in their life. The next two were recreational user and finally a medical user.

In 1946, when I was in my last year in high school in San Fernando, California, I began to hear about an exciting drug – marijuana – that some of the town’s young guys, particularly Chicanos, were using. I was an adventurous kid who took a lot of risks for excitement and wanted to try marijuana as soon as I heard about it. At this time I was swerving steadily toward a full hoodlum life. I was barely hanging on in high school, attending once or twice a week, just so I could get my diploma. Most of the time, I was hanging around a local pool hall, building a 1929 AV8 Roadster (a cool car at the time), stealing (particularly car parts and tools I needed to build the car), and drinking and partying with a friend.

In these years, marijuana was very difficult to obtain. The Mexicans in our town were getting some, but there was considerable hostility and distance between us “paddies” or “gavachos” and the Chicanos, particularly the Chicanos who had dropped out of or never gone to high school. At that time, I teamed with up a couple of young guys who were equally eager to find some “weed” and we persevered and finally cultivated a couple of “connections” in the “Barrio.”

The first two or three times we used it, we hardly got high. Either it was lousy weed or we had not passed through the initiation required to recognize and then enjoy the symptoms. But we were determined and with a little more experimenting we were getting high, some times very high.

The first times I got really high, my senses were thrown out of kilter and I was thoroughly discombobulated. I couldn’t judge space or time very well. Things were generally weird. Talking and communicating with other people was very difficult. I was slow figuring out what was going on, what other people were saying or what they meant. This often made me a little paranoid, because I thought others could tell I was screwed up and were looking at me strangely and talking about me. But even with these upsetting aspects, the high was good. I felt an underlying sense of well being and a nice anticipation that something special was going to happen. After a few times of getting high, sometimes very high, I was able to sort out much of the confusion and go with the high. I learned that I was acting a little weird, but hell with it, who cared. The distortions in space and time became amusing. In fact, everything was amusing. Then I could begin to focus on and delight in marijuana’s special pleasures: a heightened appreciation of music, gratification of my marijuana induced, voracious hunger (the “munchies”), in fact, the general enhancement of all my senses. All these, and virtually no bad side effects, no hangovers and no health consequences. Oh, it temporarily made me a little forgetful and stupid. What the heck, this was a small price to pay for a great high.

After I got over being surprised or bothered by having my thinking shaken up, I found reality was shifted and I was able to see things from a different angle. While high, I would get insights, new ideas, new slants on things. Many times, come to find out, these were trite or goofy, but not always. Sometimes I did get a new understanding of something. In general, it led to my being able to step back and view things from a different viewpoint.

For the next several years, 1946 to 1949, I used marijuana more and more. It was cool and fun. As the supply system cranked up in our town, mainly among Chicanos who smuggled it across the border, I and most of my close male friends used it regularly. In those years all our weed came from Mexico and there were no different classes or types of it. Acapulco Gold and other varieties appeared much later. We just bought weed – cans or pounds. Some of it was good, some of it not too good. At first most of our connections were in San Fernando, later we traveled to other Mexican neighborhoods – East LA or Maravilla – to score.

I was running around with a group of apprentice thugs who were all corner boy types: none went on to college, many worked in construction, factories, or other “blue collar” jobs, a few, like myself, were getting increasingly into stealing. All of us hung out a lot and partied.

After we got over the initial confusion and paranoia that sometimes accompanies the marijuana high, our experiences with it were extremely enjoyable. Some of us, for periods of time, smoked weed all day and night, that is, if we had it. More guys got high in the evenings when it was party time, which for us in those years was every night. Usually we would start off in someone’s auto. This was Los Angeles and cars were central to our lives. We would light up get high, and then move on to the night’s adventures. Usually it was not too long before we experienced the munchies, which we would then proceeded to satisfy. This sometimes meant going to a store and buying candy, occasionally a whole box of candy, or a place like Foster Freeze for hot fudge sundaes, but more often it meant invading a restaurant, frequently one of our regular hangouts, such as the Three Pigs Drive Inn in San Fernando where we would gorge ourselves.

Entering a restaurant and then ordering and eating food there, that is “pigging out,” presented two problems to us. The first was trying to get ourselves into the place without “cracking up.” Everything struck us as funny and often a glance at each other or some other insignificant occurrence would send us to an uncontrollable fit of laugher, often requiring us to withdraw, get ourselves together and make another attempt to enter the restaurant. Then once we started eating, we would often order more and more food, sometimes three orders of hamburgers and malts, to satisfy our insatiable, marijuana stoked appetites. When this occurred we would become embarrassed and paranoid, believing that we were making a scene. Sometimes, we left one restaurant to go to another for more food to avoid this kind of attention.

Other times, we would get high while we were on the way to some destination – a movie, a party or some other occasion. After we lit up, we frequently forget where we were going. After a few moments of silence, someone would come to their senses and say, “Where’re we going?” The group would look around and often someone else would ask, “Where are we?” Then we would crack up and continue, perhaps to some location entirely different from where we were headed.

All in all, our experiences, with only a few minor glitches – a little paranoia and temporary loss of mental acuity, were extremely enjoyable. Enhancing them at this time was our feeling that we were part of an exotic, deviant fraternity – “heads.” In our own “crowd” we were an avant garde minority and we knew that we were members of an extended underground of fellow heads. When we met new people from other towns or neighborhoods at places, usually places where young people from all over “The Valley” commingled, such as Jeffery’s Barn – a popular amateur fight arena, and we discovered that we were fellow heads, an instant bond was established, information about sources exchanged, and stories about getting high told.

All in all, it was an exciting time, filled with pleasureful experiences. The only “downer” was the fear of getting “busted.” Toward the end of the ’40s, the police became more aware and vigilant of marijuana use. By 1950 a new marijuana hysteria developed and precipitated more punitive laws and more law enforcement. So we became increasingly concerned with avoiding detection and arrest. Many of us and people we knew were arrested for possession and sales. A drug war had been declared.

For me and my friends marijuana dramatically changed many of our attitudes and much of our behavior. We started looking down on drinking and drunks – “lushes” – whom we believed were too loud, crass and prone to violence. We were “cool.” We paid a lot of attention to being neat and stylish in the way we dressed and groomed ourselves. We kept our cars clean. We developed cool speech patterns – said “cool,” “groovy,” and “crazy” a lot. We were quick to put down other people whom we didn’t think were cool. All in all we became a snobbish bunch.

This changed when heroin seeped into the town. It started in downtown LA, around Temple street where many “tecatos” (Mexican heroin users) had migrated with their families from El Paso, Texas. It spread out from there through the Mexican neighborhoods, reaching San Fernando in about 1950. A few of us more deviant “gavachos” who had Chicano friends started scoring from them and using “stuff” occasionally. At first it made me sick, but after a few experiences I started liking heroin very much. For the next two years I used a lot of heroin. I never acquired a very serious habit, but I preferred it over any other drug and this changed my attitudes toward marijuana and my marijuana use.

To “hypes” or “dope fiends,” (heroin addicts), marijuana users were silly and marijuana was avoided because it intruded on the heroin high and diminished it. Heroin put one into a state of peace and freedom from care, marijuana reactivates concerns and dampens the mellow feelings of the heroin high. For the next couple of years, I used very little marijuana.

I was sent to prison for robbery in l952. I was using heroin at the time, but that was not what drove me to rob. I had been trying to practice the trade of “theft” for several years, and finally turned to robbery and was arrested after a 6-month series of hold ups.

In those years heroin and marijuana were occasionally smuggled into the prison. When I had access to it, I declined using heroin. I had decided that I was not going to use opiates any more because of their addictive and debilitating properties. But my experiences with marijuana had convinced me that there were no harmful effects in its use, so I never passed it up. The few days I got high on marijuana in prison were the most pleasureful days I spent there. Regrettably, marijuana was rarely available in the prison where I served five years.

From the time I was released in 1957 until the present time I have continued to use marijuana recreationally. The frequency I have used it during the last 41 years has varied greatly, but there has not been a period that I purposely avoiding using it and there has been no extended period when I used it daily. The pattern for me has been to use marijuana, given that it has been available (which has been most of the time) somewhat like a social drinker uses alcohol, that is, as an enhancement for a variety of activities, such as, after work socializing, recreational outings, movies, and sex. I have almost never used it while I was “working,” that is while waiting on tables, attending college classes, reading, writing, conducting research, teaching classes, and carrying out all the other functions of a college professor (which I was for 27 years).

During this extended period, the vast majority of my friends have been recreational users. In fact, I have come to realize that whether a person uses or at least has tried marijuana or not is probably the best indicator of whether I can tolerate an extended relationship with them. It is not that I am intolerant of non-users, it is just that I have discovered that people who have avoided its use are usually too conservative, too cautious, and not expressive enough for my tastes. There have been some exceptions to this, but it has been a pretty good “rule of thumb.”

Ten years ago (1989) a routine medical examination revealed that I was infected with Hepatitis C, which I probably contacted when I was using heroin in my early 20s. In the ensuing years, my liver became more and more cirrhotic and my health deteriorated. By 1997 it became obvious that I was not going to live many more years without a liver transplant, so I got on a list for a new liver through the University of California at San Francisco Liver Transplant Center. In the early months of l998 my condition worsened dramatically and I received a liver in April of that year. The transplant was successful and my health returned. However, I have been required to take several drugs to depress my body’s immune system in order to prevent a rejection of the new liver. These, particularly in the first few months after the transplant, made me nauseous. I knew that marijuana was effective in relieving this symptom so I began using it whenever I experienced nausea. It worked miraculously and I continue to use it for this purpose. So I have become a “legal” user of marijuana.

Whether or not this change in the legality of my marijuana use had occurred, I would have continued to use it, probably for the rest of my life. This is because I find it greatly enhances my enjoyment in the settings and activities I described above, because I am convinced by my own experiences and all the evidence I have examined that it is relatively harmless (certainly much less harmful than any of the other widely consumed “drugs,” such as alcohol) and because I feel strongly that the prohibition of its use is silly and an intolerable invasion of my rights.

I have four children, three of them stable, productive, and relatively happy women. The third is a 15-year-old boy who is developing into a wonderful young man. I have tried to discourage all of them from using marijuana when they were too young. But I have hoped that they would all eventually experiment with it to discover if it had a place in their lives. All of my daughters have done this and two are now recreational users. The third does not enjoy it and therefore does not use it. I am very satisfied with their relationships to this drug. I am hoping my son will eventually follow their example.

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